Barbara Windsor created an icon in Peggy Mitchell, the definitive “soap matriarch”

With her impeccable makeup, quick backhand, and tongue sharper than a squeeze of lemon in a G&T, Peggy Mitchell was a showcase for Windsor’s range and old showbiz magnetism.

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As social media tributes have poured in to Barbara Windsor – the era-defining Carry On... and Eastenders actor who died on Thursday, aged 83, following a 2014 Alzheimer’s diagnosis – there is one video of her which has proliferated across news feeds and timelines most of all.

The clip is taken from an Eastenders episode which originally aired on the 2nd of November 2000, and is notorious as one of Windsor’s best ever moments as beloved Queen Victoria pub landlady Peggy Mitchell, the role she played from 1994 until her 2016 departure.

The diminutive Peggy stands between her best friend, Pat Evans (played by Pam St. Clement), and her husband, Frank Butcher (Mike Reid), as she gears up to reveal their affair to the packed bar of the Queen Vic, with every Albert Square resident but Wellard the dog looking on. It is one of hundreds of examples of how Windsor made soap acting – which is so often eyerollingly disregarded as overwrought, as if that is not, at least in part, the point – an art form.

In just over four minutes, Windsor’s Peggy changes emotional gears with a seemingly impossible alchemy of grit and grace. She vibrates with dignified rage as she holds court in the pub, delivers a screamer of a one-liner (“Why they’re still here is a bit of a mystery!”), doles out not one but two of her famous slaps, and finally, leaves the bar as her voice cracks, never one to let her audience see her cry. It is testament to Windsor’s performance that the scene hits the precise sweet spot between irresistible soapland melodrama and a truthful exploration of the many emotions involved in an experience of infidelity, and of how a proud East End woman like Peggy – so motivated by reputation and outward appearance – might handle them.

Of course, her skill in the role came as no surprise. By the time Windsor joined Eastenders, she was already a seasoned and decorated actor. Born Barbara Ann Deeks in Shoreditch, London, to fruit and veg man John Deeks and dressmaker Rose, she made her stage debut aged only 13, and was cast on the West End soon later. Film and TV work ensued, including a BAFTA-nominated turn in Sparrows Can’t Sing, directed by the influential dramatist Joan Littlewood. Windsor also took up a role in Littlewood’s Broadway production of the satirical musical Oh! What a Lovely War, for which she received a Tony Award nomination. (According to a tweet by broadcaster Dr. Matthew Sweet, when he asked Windsor what she would say to politician Michael Gove, following his 2014 assertion that the play contributed to “an unhappy compulsion on the part of some to denigrate virtues such as patriotism, honour and courage,” she replied: “I’d say fuck off.”)

In 1964, she took on her first role in the Carry On… film franchise, as Daphne Honeybutt in Carry On Spying. After appearing in eight more Carry On… films in the subsequent decade, she became best known to the public – who, she said in 2004, “loved” the films despite the fact that they “were always dismissed as rubbish” – for her portrayals of glam blondes of various stripes.

But there would turn out to be no blonde quite as glamorous, formidable, or downright memorable as Eastenders’ beehived and lacquered Peggy, who gave Windsor her widest and most loyal audience later in her career. Beamed into millions of British homes several nights a week, with her impeccable makeup, quick backhand, and tongue sharper than a squeeze of lemon in a G&T, Peggy Mitchell became the blueprint for what exists in the British popular consciousness as a “soap matriarch” – and that’s without even mentioning her resounding “Get outta my pub” and “Sling yer hook” catchphrases.

Intensely protective of her family, and ultimately firmly defined by her relationships with her children – the formidable Phil ‘n’ Grant (Steve McFadden and Ross Kemp) and daughter Sam (originally played by Danniella Westbrook, and later by Kim Medcalf) – and her best friend Pat, rather than by any husband in particular, Windsor’s award-winning portrayal of Peggy helped to carve out soap as a medium where hardy woman actors and characters are famously at the very centre. In contrast with the Carry On… films, Windsor’s Eastenders performance was a showcase for her range – comedy, sentimentality; frequently both at once – and old showbiz magnetism.

Windsor said goodbye to Eastenders four years ago, in 2016 – two years after she had been told she was suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, and two years before her diagnosis was made known to the public. In her final scene, Peggy, suffering from cancer, decides to end her life. On Friday, the soap issued a statement which read, “We are all deeply saddened that we’ve lost our Dame. Barbara created an icon in Peggy Mitchell, our formidable Landlady. To all of us at EastEnders, she was our dearest friend, truly loved and adored by everyone.” The show’s social media feeds are currently devoted to memories of Windsor, as shared by Eastenders cast and crew members, while BBC One dedicated its Friday evening schedule to her life and legacy.

Windsor’s final moments on Eastenders now carry an obvious extra weight. Before Peggy dies, she hallucinates Pat (Pam St. Clement, who retired from Eastenders in 2012, returned especially for the scenes), and tells her:

“I will go as I have lived. Straight back, head high, like a queen,” resolutely and without fear.

Indeed, just like Peggy, there is no doubt that the world could possibly remember the great Barbara Windsor any other way.

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